My colleague, Pat Love and I have written that a great many marital disputes are triggered by an unconscious fear-shame dynamic, in which the fear or anxiety of one triggers shame-avoidant behavior (withdrawal or aggression) in the other, and vice versa. The classic example occurs in the car. A passenger startles at something she sees on the road. The driver gets angry, perceiving her involuntary startle as an assault on his charioteering. He'll sulk or say something sarcastic or turn into Ben-Hur, ready to drive those other chariots off the road, making her even more afraid and angry. They'll each feel that the other is overreacting, insensitive, inconsiderate, or immature.
The culprit here isn't poor communication skills or childhood wounds. Rather, the couple is subject to a primal interactive dynamic present in other social animals - when escape is not viable, fear in one stimulates aggression in the other. This dynamic takes on sex dimensions for two reasons. Females of social animals tend to be more fearful and vigilant than males in general but especially when they have young. They also tend to have better hearing and/or sense of smell, making them ideal alarm systems for the group. Males tend to be larger, more powerful, more aggressive, more expendable (the pack will have billions of sperm but only a handful of eggs), and better suited to protect against intruders and predators. Males who fail to respond to female fear, i.e., those who fail to protect the pack, are subject to attack by the more dominant members. Though anthropomorphizing is risky, failure to protect causes a vulnerability in the males of some social animals that seems close to what we would call shame.
This ancient male vulnerability appears in modern humans as dread of failure, particularly as a protector, provider, or lover. The pain of failure can be so debilitating for men that we expend enormous amounts of emotional energy trying to avoid it, both in behavior and in the construction of the male ego, which can be thought of as a denial of failure. Of course, women have egos, too, but "Death before dishonor" is not a phrase associated with women's groups and few women would rather behave like a jerk than a "loser." The male ego seems to need considerable resources to defend.
Thanks to our egos, men are the only examples of social animals who consistently turn aggression against anxious females with whom we are bonded. Thus we have perverted the natural function of aggression in social animals, which is secondarily self-protection but primarily protection of loved ones. (You'll get more aggressive if I attack your wife or children than if I attack you - protection of loved ones overrides self-protection.) We have recycled the primary function of aggression from protection of loved ones to protection of the ego. Tragically, no one can offend a man's ego as gravely as his wife or lover.
Bringing us together and tearing us apart
The unconscious fear-shame dynamic works very well in courtship. Before the social bond is formed - before the man is the official protector of the pack - he responds to a woman's anxiety, expressions of concern, or exposure of vulnerability with a desire to help. He wants to be supportive, protective, generous (at least within his means), attentive, and good company, thereby soothing any fear of harm, isolation, or deprivation she may have.
A man is unlikely to fall in love with a woman who thinks he's a loser, a lousy lay, or a wimp. He will typically need his partner to be pleased with his success (or potential for success), satisfied by his love-making, and to feel safe and secure in his presence. He needs to feel that she believes in him. She soothes his dread of failure.
In short order, the same vulnerabilities that brought us together begin to tear us apart. After marriage (or cohabitation), a man expects that his wife (or cohabiter) will never again have a negative emotion, because he is now protecting her. When she becomes anxious or fearful, he feels like a failure. His defensiveness makes her more anxious, and her fear makes him more ashamed. If she says, "I feel isolated, I'm not getting my needs met, you take me for granted, just want me for sex, etc.," he hears, regardless of how she puts it, "The way you love isn't good enough; you're failing as a husband; you're a bad boy" He gets defensive and angry and either tries to control her or shuts down emotionally.
The unconscious fear-shame dynamic explains many relationship problems, including why couples get so irrational about money issues, which are, for the most part, just practical budgeting and fairness considerations. His dread of failure as provider makes him want to control provisions, which stimulates a fear of deprivation that makes her want to spend money to maintain a nest, and vice versa. It also explains at least some of the fights about sex. Regardless of who has the greater sex drive, her anxiety about having sex stimulates his dread of failure as a lover and his aggressive response to failure stimulates her anxiety about having sex with him.
An angry, non-violent man cannot figure out why his wife is afraid of him, when he has never physically harmed her and is certain that he never would. After all, he wouldn't be afraid if she were angry at him. Never mind that masculine physiology powerfully enhances the effects of resentful or angry behavior. The males of most social animals have greater muscle mass and deeper, more resonant voices, specifically designed for roaring or screaming. The angry male voice gets deeper and more menacing, because it is designed to invoke fear of physical harm (in rivals and predators), whether he wants it to or not. Angry women can sound shrill or unpleasant, but rarely will their voices invoke fear of physical harm in grown men. Angry or resentful males of most species of social mammals experience more blood flow to their muscles (we puff up when we get angry), making our bodies seem more physically threatening. So why is she afraid?
Many therapists greatly underestimate the power of the fear-shame dynamic or, worse, pathologize it. Just the other day I received an email from a woman married to an angry, resentful, and, at times, emotionally abusive man. Their couple's therapist, a man, explained that her fearfulness and lack of trust of her husband, who is trying to reform, was a kind of "blackmail" - a shame-driven characterization if I ever heard one. He recommended that she go into individual psychotherapy to discover the childhood origins of her fear. Similarly, women therapists are quick to label men's egos and struggles with shame as developmentally immature or narcissistic and blame it on bad parenting or patriarchy.
Compassion vs. Empathy
When it comes to fear and shame, empathy - identification with the feelings of another - is likely to obscure the deeper experience of each partner. There may be a short-term gain in understanding that she's anxious or that he's trying to avoid feeling like a failure, but "putting oneself in the shoes of the other" eventually leads to something like this:
"I wouldn't be afraid if that happened to me, so she shouldn't either."
"If I got fired from my job I would use it as a motivation to form stronger bonds at work the next time, and that's how he should see it."
Rather than trying to empathize about fear and shame, we need a higher form of compassion and respect for vulnerabilities we do not share. For example, sighted people, whose brains are wired for visual imagery, cannot empathize with those born blind, whose visual cortex is wired for a different sense. But we can feel compassion and admiration for them as they negotiate a world constructed for the sighted. And they can feel the same for us who are so deficient in other valuable senses. With this higher level compassion for our different vulnerabilities, communication between loved ones and support of them becomes easy. Without it, our desire to support turns into manipulation or control and our negotiations take the form of:
"You have to be more like me and see the world the way I do."
Couples can greatly improve their relationships if they identify the negative emotions that undermine their interactions as the unconscious fear-shame dynamic. It is not one person doing it to the other; it is something happening to both of them, and together they can disarm it by getting in touch with their deeper values. On a deep value level, neither wants the other to feel anxious or like a failure. On that level they are more compassionate and can reinstate their connection to one another.
Fortunately, connection soothes both fear and shame, and greatly eases negotiation about behaviors. Connected, couples can solve problems. Disconnected, they will get lost in torrents of resentment and anger caused by their fear and shame.